Adventure and contribution are hallmarks of great conservationists, but we can find both closer to home than you might imagine.

Most of us dream of doing great things, yet the seeds of such deeds almost always start as small endeavours. The childhood explorations of Suzi Eszterhas is a wonderful example of this. In her biographical children’s book ‘My Wild Life’, the acclaimed wildlife photographer recalls many joyful hours in her backyard taking pictures of her cats. “I pretended they were lions and tigers in the wild,” wrote Eszterhas.

Observing cats in your garden or neighbourhood is a great way to develop skills in wildlife photography and conservation.

“I also loved to just sit under a tree and feel close to nature. I spent hours watching squirrels and birds. I wrote everything they did in my field book. I felt like Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees in the wild. I didn’t know it at the time, but all those hours I spent sitting quietly in nature were great training for being a wildlife photographer. Some days, it’s all I do for hours at a time.”

Keeping a journal or sketchbook is an essential skill of studying nature.

Like Suzi, John Novak loves to observe the goings-on of nature in his own backyard. In this story, John tells us about the wildlife he finds visiting his yard and how little adventures close to home are a valuable way to develop skills and contribute to conservation.

Here is the story of the naturalist’s garden and his banquet for birds…

It may seem conservation efforts belong to organizations and professionals with specific resources and education. While large scale, long duration efforts are organized and executed in this way, it does not leave you without an ability to contribute. And when contributing, why not make your part personal?

I find photographing birds of all kinds compelling, not only for the challenge of capturing the form and beauty of these creatures, but also as an opportunity to foster local bird communities. While I enjoy fields trips to Wildlife Preserves and other areas, time constraints do not allow these activities frequently. As an alternative, I thought attracting birds to my backyard might be a great way to practice photography techniques, and installed a simple feeder.

Off I went in search of a feeder. The search was not to last long, as a local Lowe’s had a stock of feeder stands, a variety of feeders, and several types of seed varieties. I selected a stand with several arms, a clear tube feeder, including perches, and a tray which mounts below the tube feeder. With a few hours’ effort, I now had a feeder stand and feeder installed in the backyard, conveniently placed to allow photograph from the rear porch.

The next morning, I was out early on the porch, awaiting what surely was to be a spectacular collection of local birds. After about an hour, and no visitors, I gave up for the day a bit disappointed, but thinking, “Surely, tomorrow”. The next day, no birds. Nor the next. A bit of research suggested it takes time for the local bird population to discover a new feeding site, sometimes a couple of weeks. So more waiting. Well, after a week, visitors appeared. And, as the days went on, the variety of species and frequency of visits increased. After a couple months, the feeder has its daily busy times, and there is plenty of activity. 

This male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was amongst the birds, which finally discovered John’s banquet of seeds. The species has encouraged many people to consult a field guide with their vibrant red feathers. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.

Nearly any bird feeder you put out ought to attract this vibrant species (as long as you live within their range), but they particularly seem to use sunflower seeds. Leave undergrowth in your backyard or around the edges, and you may have cardinals nesting on your property. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

John Novak is a wildlife photographer and robotics engineer, his images portray the personalities and intricate beauty of his subjects. Explore his Insta gallery @hetzerrr and photography portfolio.

Recommended Resources

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (@cornellbirds) have created an online database ‘All About Birds’, an indispensable resource of avian sounds, identification, history, maps, tips and tools which foster the conservation, science, and research of birds around the world.

My Wild Life: Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer by Suzi Eszterhas (published by Owlkid Books @owlkidspublishing).

About the book: Spectacular photographs of animals paired with interesting anecdotes will instantly draw readers in. Each section of the book explores a unique part of Eszterhas’s job with energetic and engaging language. Along with photography tips and stories about life in the field, Eszterhas’s sections on conservation and treating animals with respect will enhance readers’ awareness of these issues. Filled with adorable animals, stories from the field, and subtle lessons on resilience and female empowerment, the story of Eszterhas’s wild life asks readers to pursue their passions, while treating the natural world with curiosity, kindness, and respect. Follow Suzi @suzieszterhas.

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.